Blue Marble

The Termites That Sank New Orleans

| Tue Oct. 14, 2008 6:37 PM EDT

399px-Coptotermes_formosanus_shiraki_USGov_k8204-7.jpg A new study in American Entomologist suggests termites damaged New Orleans dikes enough for Hurricane Katrina to knock them over. The researchers first noticed termite trouble five years before Katrina struck. They found Formosan subterranean termites in floodwall seams made of bagasse—the residue from processed sugarcane. Formosan termites love the stuff.

After the 2005 breaches, the researchers inspected 100 seams, including three areas with major breaks. Seventy percent of the seams in the London Avenue Canal had been attacked by insects, and two major dike breaks occurred there during Katrina. Twenty-seven percent of seams in the ravaged 17th Street Canal also showed termite damage.

The Formosan subterranean termite is an invasive species native to China, where it damages levees. Besides eating at bagasse seams, the termites may have contributed to the destruction of the levees of New Orleans by digging networks of tunnels that funneled water and undermined the levee system. Ooops. . . The authors suggest that New Orleans' 350 miles of levees and floodwalls be surveyed for termite damage.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

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Bear-Market Biodiversity

| Mon Oct. 13, 2008 11:33 PM EDT

450px-Medved_mzoo.jpg Think Wall Street's rollercoaster ride is scary? Imagine if stocks were species. That's what the future looks like in a warming world: a monster bear market robbing the world of its real riches.

A new review published in Science addresses the question of whether the tropical forests and coral reefs of the tropics will have the most to lose as a result of global warming. Some say no: that tropical organisms will do well because their ranges will expand into temperate areas. Others says yes: because there's little or no wilderness left in the temperate zone for them to move into.

Now a review of published papers finds that for plants and insects on a mountain slope in Costa Rica, a 3.2-degree C increase in temperature threatens 53 percent of lowland species with extinction, while 51 percent face range-shift gaps—meaning they have nowhere else to go.

Another reviewed study follows historical range changes for small mammals during 100 years of climate change in Yosemite National Park. These data show that species' ranges are likely to contract dangerously as warming pushes life farther and farther up mountain slopes. . . Bottom line: biodiversity is Earth's credit line. Without it, there's absolutely no way to fund the future. Time to reassess our fatally flawed economics .

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

How the Bailout Benefits the Environment

| Fri Oct. 10, 2008 6:21 PM EDT

Everyone knows the $700 billion bailout package is a boon for Wall Street. But it turns out green consumers stand to benefit too. According to Fortune and the Environmental News Network, the legislation includes a number of perks for the eco-friendly, including:

Penguins Threatened in Antarctic, Dying in South America

| Fri Oct. 10, 2008 2:16 PM EDT

penguin-lifecycle.JPGYou'd think that with penguins driving a booming Antarctic tourism industry, there'd be some climate change protection for the little guys. Not so, says a new World Wildlife Fund report. If the world's temperature increases 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, it will threaten half of emperor penguin breeding grounds, and 75 percent of Adelie penguin colonies. The temperature rise would also likely severely impact krill, a key food source for penguins.

If that weren't bad enough, dead, emaciated, and oil-slicked Magellanic penguins have been washing up on Brazilian beaches. Magellanic penguins live in Argentina, regularly visit Brazil, but not in the numbers or conditions seen this summer. Their lack of body fat is a bad sign that something's seriously amiss in their environment. Many animals are imperiled by global warming, but somehow losing the penguins seems extra depressing.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Hack-A-Vote

| Wed Oct. 8, 2008 1:01 AM EDT

MDvotingmachine.jpg Graduate and undergraduate students at Rice University are learning how easy it is to wreak havoc on today's voting machines. As part of an advanced computer science class, students do their best to rig a voting machine in the classroom.

Here's how it works: The class is split into two teams. In phase one, the teams play unscrupulous programmers at a voting machine company. Their task is to make subtle changes to the Hack-A-Vote's software that will alter the election's outcome but that can't be detected by election officials. In the second phase, the teams play software regulators who certify the code submitted by the hacking team.

The results prove it's easy to insert subtle changes to the voting machine. If someone has access and wants to do damage, it's a straightforward hack. The good news is the regulator team often find the hack. Often, but not always.

Google Earth Adds Ocean View

| Tue Oct. 7, 2008 5:15 PM EDT

ocean.jpgIt's not all bad news from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) this week. Today the group, in partnership with Google, launched an interactive marine layer for Google Earth. Users will be able to explore all of the world's most sensitive ocean areas, as well as upload their own photos and information to the map. Check it out here.

I haven't gotten to play with this yet, as the layer so far only works with Windows. But my sense is that the combination of solid information and the familiar Google Earth interface will get a lot more people interested in the fate of the ocean. Needless to say, the sooner the better.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from coda.

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Half of The World's Mammals Are in Decline, Says Study

| Mon Oct. 6, 2008 3:07 PM EDT

According to an international survey of the world's mammals, up to half of all species are experiencing declines in population. The latest "Red List" published by the Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) shows that 188 species are "critically endangered," although the real number may be higher since scientists were unable to gather sufficient information on about 836 species to determine the health of their populations. And rates of extinction appear to be increasing. Some 76 mammals are known to have become extinct since 1500, but today 1,141 of the 5,487 mammal species are considered to be "threatened." The leading cause, according to the study, appears to be destruction of habitat, followed by pollution and the hunting of animals for food, medicine, and materials. A dire situation? You betcha, as my favorite politician would say. Just read Julia Whitty.

Study: Toxic PBDEs Are 10 Times Higher in California

| Fri Oct. 3, 2008 9:44 PM EDT

A team of researchers led by the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass. just published a study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that shows that the levels of PBDEs—fire-retardant chemicals used in furniture, bedding, and other household items—are ten times higher in California households than in other areas of the country. Just as worrying, the study shows that California residents have twice the amount of PBDEs in their bloodstream than do people living elsewhere.

Why? The LA Times speculates that the high levels of PBDEs could be attributed to a law California passed 30 years ago requiring furniture and bedding to contain enough of the chemicals so that the items could resist ignition for 12 seconds if held to an open flame.

Writes the Times:

The research team, which also included scientists from UC Berkeley, Brown University in Rhode Island and Communities for a Better Environment, a California environmental activist group, collected samples from 49 homes in the San Francisco Bay Area cities of Richmond and Bolinas and 120 homes on Cape Cod and compared levels in those homes with published levels from Canada, Europe and several U.S. cities.

Levels in California homes were 10 times higher than those on Cape Cod, five times higher than those in Texas, six times higher than those in Washington, D.C., four times higher than those in Boston and 200 times higher than those in Europe, where the chemicals are used sparingly.

Perhaps it's time to ditch your chemical mattress?

—Katie Flynn

Economy Screws Climate

| Fri Oct. 3, 2008 9:26 PM EDT

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Economic turmoil on its latest grandest scale is already threatening Europe's climate protection policies. Automakers today urged EU authorities today to reconsider proposed limits on CO2 emissions. Their argument: the current financial crisis makes it too hard to meet them, reports New Scientist.

Cynical-mini-me says why not make the car-makers adhere to tighter CO2 emissions and then give them a bail-out? You know, the tried and true method.

The European Commission is also proposing to auction CO2 emissions permits by 2013. But now Poland, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria are assembling a blocking minority to stall that climate package. They argue their power plants don't have enough cash to compete with giants like Germany on the free-market auctions.

Well, no one's got cash now. Maybe not even by 2013. Too bad we didn't seriously tackle this environmental regime change when the global economy was fat and happy. The ranks of the whiners just got bigger and louder and harder to budge. All while the environmental meltdown that no one's paying attention to until it gobbles us up is coming our way too.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Study: Chocolate and Alcohol Are Bad for Your Planet

| Fri Oct. 3, 2008 4:53 PM EDT

You may already know how food manufacture contributes to global warming—it's had its fair share of coverage lately, though the actual numbers have varied. In 2007, climate change experts pegged agriculture as producing 10 to 12 percent of global emissions. A Greenpeace study bumps this number up to 17 to 32 percent when you factor in land-use changes such as deforestation and overgrazing.

But a four-year UK study recently released by the Food Climate Research Network is likely to be the most comprehensive research so far. Pegging 19 percent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions as food-related—with meat and dairy contributing half of those—the report serves up more than the usual recommendations to shop locally and walk to the store.

Among the options? Eliminating "unnecessary" foods with little nutritional value like alcohol, which it says contributes 1.5 percent of emissions from food, and chocolate. According to Cadbury, notes the report, the milk in a chocolate bar is the source of 60 percent of the bar's greenhouse gas emissions (no word on whether dark chocolate-lovers are more eco-friendly).

Other personal change recommendations include: using microwaves more often, covering cooking pots for efficiency, shopping on the Internet, and accepting "different notions of quality"—presumably eating bruised peaches.

The UK report also states that by 2050 we'll all need to eat similar to developing countries today: A four-ounce portion (or two sausages) of meat every other day, four cups of milk per week, max, and no cheese. (Currently, the average Brit consumes more than three times that, or the equivalent of two chicken breasts, four ham sandwiches, six sausages, eight pieces of bacon, three hamburgers, 12.5 cups of milk, and three and a half ounces of cheese each week.)

But what do the meat and dairy associations have to say about this? Not surprisingly, the National Farmers' Union in England calls the proposals "simplistic". Chocolate lovers have yet to weigh in.

—Brittney Andres